Thursday 15 December 2016

Expedition to Netitishi - Days 3 and 4

Introduction and drive up - October 27 and 28, 2016
Days 1 and 2 - October 28 and 29, 2016
Days 3 and 4 - October 30 and 31, 2016
Days 5 and 6 - November 1 and 2, 2016
Days 7 and 8 - November 3 and 4, 2016
Days 9 and 10 - November 5 and 6, 2016
Days 11 and 12 - November 7 and 8, 2016
Days 13 and 14 - November 9 and 10, 2016
Days 15 and 16 - November 11 and 12, 2016
Days 17 and 18 - November 13 and 14, 2016

October 30, 2016
Weather: -2 to 5 to 1 degrees C, wind SW 10 km/h to WSW 15-20 km/hr, overcast, occasional light rain/snowflakes
38 species
eBird checklist here

Despite less than ideal weather conditions, some birds were flying past the coast including a dozen very distant Red-throated Loons, good numbers of scaup, and four flocks of Brant moving west along the coast. The day however will be remembered mostly for two bird sightings that came within a 15 minute period.

During the mid-afternoon, I was scanning the coast as the tide was receding, while Todd was walking around near the coast, collecting driftwood if I recall. Sitting back in my chair, I noticed three small, dark ducks flying to the east, right along the waterline which was only 100 m away from where I was sitting. I quickly got them in my scope and realized they were Harlequin Ducks, so I yelled at Todd to direct his attention to the coast. He noticed the birds and we watched them land only 50 m or so away from us, right along the shoreline! Waterbirds rarely land at Netitishi - what were the odds that the rarest birds of the trip so far happened to just sit there in the water, mere metres away!?

Harlequin Ducks - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

We ran out with our scopes, but they were not necessary as the ducks were content to slowly swim close to shore, occasionally preening. I positioned myself a little further down the coast and crouched down at the water's edge. Luckily the ducks continued paddling towards me and I was able to take a few photos from a decently close distance.

Harlequin Ducks - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

Harlequin Duck is currently on the Ontario Bird Records Committee review list for the Lowlands area, meaning that it is sufficiently rare enough that sightings should be documented and sent in to the committee. However, Harlequin Ducks do have a pattern of being seen in southern James Bay at this time of year - the only problem is that visits by birders are sporadic at best. Below are all of the Harlequin Duck sightings for the Lowlands area that have been accepted by the OBRC. As you can see, each of these records except the Hudson Bay record were from Netitishi Point.

1 at Netitishi Point on 17 October 1981 (R. Douglas McRae)
1 at Sutton River mouth, Kenora District, Hudson Bay on 26 September 1983
1 at Netitishi Point on 26 October 2012 (Alan Wormington, Josh Vandermeulen)
1 at Netitishi Point on 30 October 2012 (Alan Wormington, Josh Vandermeulen)
1 at Netitishi Point on 28 October 2013 (Josh Vandermeulen, Alan Wormington)

Harlequin Ducks - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

Including this sighting, each of five observations in southern James Bay fall between the window of October 17 and October 30. These birds more than likely breed further north up the James or Hudson Bay coasts, nesting near one of the fast flowing streams in that area. In recent years Harlequin Ducks have been showing up more regularly in small numbers on the lower Great Lakes, and sightings at Thunder Cape on Lake Superior are also becoming more frequent. There is a possibility that the Hudson/James Bay breeding Harlequin Ducks overwinter on the Great Lakes.

Eventually after 10 or 12 minutes the Harlequin Ducks had had enough and took off down the coast, hugging the shoreline until they were out of sight. It was a great way to kick off the trip!

Harlequin Ducks - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

The other highlight for the day occurred only 10 minutes after the Harlequin Ducks had flown off. Small flocks of Dunlins and Sanderlings had been flying back and forth along the mudflats, and with the tide most of the way in they were quite close and easy to get on with our scopes. While scanning one group of Dunlin flying to the left, I noticed a small, gray  "peep" was flying with them and I quickly cranked up my scope's magnification to 60x. The bird had a dark rump, while it had been easy to see the white rump of the White-rumped Sandpipers that we had scoped earlier in the day. The peep had a relatively long, decurved bill, that while shorter than the nearby Dunlin, had a similar (though less pronounced) curvature. Unfortunately the sighting was somewhat brief and the bird did not reappear, but I am reasonably confident that it was a Western Sandpiper.

In the early afternoon, we heard the distant sound of a boat engine and shortly afterwards noticed a freighter canoe heading towards us from far to the west. Eventually the two guys brought the boat up the river mouth to an area where they could stow it just about the high tide mark. It was Norman Rickard, one of the brothers who runs the camp, and a younger guy by the name of Raymond. They were visiting just for one night to drop off some supplies before taking the boat back during high tide the following day. It was great to meet them, especially since I had only ever talked to Norman over the phone.

Norman and Raymond approaching by freighter canoe - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

A decent variety of passerines were around throughout the day, highlighted by 3 Bohemian Waxwings by the camp - these were my first ever Bohemians for Netitishi Point. We also found our first Purple Finch of the trip, while several Golden-crowned Kinglets and an American Pipit were still present.

October 31, 2016
Weather:  0 to 6 to 3 degrees C, wind S 5 km/h to SE 10 km/h, mostly clear skies and overcast by early evening, no precipitation
33 species
eBird checklist here

The tide had been shifting later by an hour each passing day and today it was scheduled for 4 PM or so. Therefore when we set out for the coast at dawn, with a slight breeze from the south, the sea was most of the way receded to the low tide mark.
The last day of October was certainly the most pleasant day of the trip so far. The morning was sunny and calm, and despite the slight chill in the air it felt great to be standing in the open landscape of the James Bay coast. I passed the time by scanning the flats from the sea-watching shelter, now reinforced with spruce boughs to block the wind and with the shrubbery in front of the shelter neatly trimmed down, enabling clean sight lines down the coast.

A few small flocks of shorebirds were present on the flats nicely illuminated by the low angle of sunlight provided at this time of year. Some gulls were also loafing and I eventually focused on a group of 70 plus Herring Gulls that had landed on a gravel bar near the low tide mark. One dark-mantled gull demanded further study. Despite the distance, I was reasonably confident of the identification of adult Lesser Black-backed Gull as the still, clean air led to great viewing conditions without any haze. I could make out the mantle colour and some streaking on the head, and was afforded with a nice size comparison with nearby Herring Gulls. As Todd returned and I got him on the bird, he agreed with my ID. We set off on foot - partly to try to get closer for better looks and photos, but also as for me it was an excuse to walk for a few kilometres and experience the vastness of the land from way out on the flats.

looking back at Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

looking back at Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

It was a worthwhile walk, even as the Lesser Black-backed Gull flushed and seemingly vanished once we were 2/3 of the way to where it had been resting. We were fortunate in having some better views since we stopped several times along the walk to study the bird. It was a great decision regardless to walk out to where the gull was, even though I flooded one of my boots in the creek on the walk out, and flooded the other boot on the return trip! Todd and I scoped out the shorebirds feeding on the flats and were pleased to see at least 2 American Golden-Plovers with the 40+ Black-bellied Plovers. Certainly not unusual numbers for the time of year at Netitishi, though 40 Black-bellied and 2 American Golden-Plovers in southern Ontario at this time of year would be quite noteworthy. In addition to the shorebirds, I also scoped out a raptor perched on a snag way out on the flats to the west, which after some discussion we decided that it was a Merlin. Raptor identification is not always easy from 3 km away!

Todd scoping the coast - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

The birding during the rest of the day was relatively unremarkable; the wind stayed southerly and not much was migrating out over the bay. By the afternoon the temperature had risen to a balmy 6 degrees Celsius with very light, warm south winds and clear skies. However, as birders know well, beautiful days often are not the best days for finding birds, especially at a location like Netitishi which is dependent on strong winds, often associated with cold weather to bring the most interesting species. Todd and I patiently and dutifully kept watch, this time from the closest dune ridge by the high tide mark. Even on slow days some great birds have been seen at Netitishi - I think each of my three Northern Gannet sightings have come on relatively slow days, and the second Dovekie that Alan Wormington and Brandon Holden found in 2010 was on a day with southwest winds. You just never know when something preposterous will fly by, and it is worth it to keep watch as much as possible.

It felt inevitable that eventually we would see a Gyrfalcon or some other raptor species make the rounds, and while that did not happen, we did have a Northern Shrike come flying in and landing right beside us on some driftwood before realizing who or what we were. By the time I had my camera ready it was already a ways down the coast. The shrike was the only noteworthy sighting from the seawatch, however!

Northern Shrike - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District

Raymond and Norman planned to leave at high tide, but by 4:00 PM or so the tide had not reached their boat. Surely the south wind did not assist, as it had pushed the water back and as a result the sea was still 40-50 yards short of their boat. Norman approached to ask for out assistance, which Todd and I obliged. With Raymond's instruction,we laid out some "rollers" (round driftwood logs) spaced every 2 or 3 metres, to be used exactly how they sound. With all the gear unloaded from the boat, we each grabbed a corner and heaved the heavy wooden vessel toward the rollers. As Raymond remarked to Norman afterwards, it worked exactly as he said - he had some experience with this technique apparently! After two more rounds of this the boat was in the water, not before both Todd and I had flooded our boots. We hauled the rest of their gear out to the boat, including the spare outboard that Todd and I lugged, and by 4:45 PM they were on their way.

Loading up the canoe - Netitishi Point, Cochrane District (photo by Todd Hagedorn)

The birding had shut down for the day and it was late in the afternoon so we closed up shop and headed in for the night. We started a big fire in the wood stove and Todd lit a garbage fire while I cooked up dinner. We chopped some wood, had a whiskey drink or two and hit the hay after doing our notes.


Roxane Filion said...

I really enjoy reading about all your birding adventures, but especially the ones up the coast! It is such an important piece of land for the birds and you always provide us with interesting views of the scenery and its bird life.

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Thanks Roxane - it is much appreciated. We are fortunate to be able to visit such a beautiful place, which wouldn't be possible without the generosity of the Moose Cree who let us use their land.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing more details of your adventure! It looks beautiful there. Great pics of the Harlequins! -Laura

Josh Vandermeulen said...

Thanks, Laura. We were pretty lucky that the Harlequins decided to land right at Netitishi Point. Its rare to see any ducks that close, let along Harlequins!